Will the New York Times Have to Choose Between Profit and Truth-Telling?

New NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan’s comments on “he said, she said” journalism got a lot of attention last week, and though her semi-denouncement is definitely an improvement, her defense of some of the paper’s convention coverage was somewhat troubling:

The trick, of course, is to determine those facts, to identify the established truth. Editors and reporters say that is not always such an easy call. And sometimes readers who demand “just the facts” are really demanding their version of the facts…

What’s more, reporters and editors often have to make these calls on tight deadlines, as they did just after Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention last month.That speech carried some assertions that have been shown to be misleading, and other speeches at both political conventions have become flash points for the fact-checking and false-balance discussion.

Sullivan’s reasoning highlights the eternal conflict between the newspaper as a profit-making enterprise and the newspaper a socially beneficial truth-teller. I desperately want newspapers to be 100% in the truth-telling camp, and so when I read her appeal to deadlines I think, “If you’re not sure about the accuracy of what you’re writing about, don’t print the article. Wait a few hours. People can get a recap from the AP.” But Sullivan doesn’t see it that way. Somewhere out there are people who didn’t watch the convention, don’t use the internet, and are reliant on the NYT print edition to find out about Paul Ryan’s speech. People are expecting a product and the newspaper has to deliver it even if the quality isn’t ideal. As a business, the Times can’t say, “We just didn’t get it done tonight. Go to WashingtonPost.com if you want to find out about the convention.”

None of this is a huge issue today, but in a few years that segment of people who need the NYT print edition will dwindle to nothing. The question is, how will the Times and other newspapers react to a world of purely digital news where nobody needs half-truths? Will they accept that they don’t need to be everything to everybody and use the freedom to increase the quality of their product? Or will they continue to churn out imperfect work on deadline as if people have no alternative to their print editions?


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